A federal appeals court has refused to give a Charlotte police officer immunity for shooting a 15-year-old in 2010, clearing the way for a possible second trial of a lawsuit filed by the youth’s mother.
Valinda Streater sued in 2011, accusing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Matthew Wilson and the city of negligence, emotional distress and violation of constitutional rights, among other allegations.
The first trial before U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn ended in a hung jury, with a 5-3 vote in favor of Wilson, according to court records. Wilson never faced criminal charges and remains on the force.
The officer’s civil court defense team requested “qualified immunity,” which shields government workers from constitutional claims if their actions do not violate “clearly established law.”
Cogburn refused, saying jurors could reasonably decide that Wilson overreacted when he fired four shots at Jeffrey Green, hitting him twice. The youth survived.
Shortly before the second trial was to begin, the city appealed Cogburn’s ruling to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and attorneys appeared before a three-judge panel on March 20 in Richmond, Va.
In an opinion issued Monday, the judges unanimously backed Cogburn. Writing for her two colleagues, Judge Allyson Duncan said Wilson violated Green’s constitutional rights on Oct. 16, 2010, when the officer used deadly force.
That night, Streater broke up with her live-in boyfriend, who later stabbed her twice before she fled from her home into the street. Wilson was the first police officer to respond. Streater has testified that she gave Wilson and another officer a description of the boyfriend and told them he had driven off.
As Wilson walked back to Streater’s home to check on her parents, he met Green and a companion. Green carried a kitchen knife, which he said he took from his home after hearing of the attack on his mother.
Wilson pulled his gun, ordered the teen to stop and to drop the knife. Green eventually did both. Streater, standing nearby, yelled at the officer that Green was her son, court documents say.
Wilson opened fire, later saying he had not seen the youth drop the knife and still considered him a threat. After a pause, according to court records, Wilson fired two more shots.
The officer’s attorneys contend that Wilson’s reaction was appropriate, given the chaotic situation he encountered that night.
But in her opinion, Duncan rejected the notion that Wilson committed “a reasonable mistake.” She bore in on Wilson’s last two shots, saying the officer had time to determine that Green, who was standing almost 32 feet away, did not pose the threat necessary to justify deadly force.
“... At the point Officer Wilson chose to fire a third and then a fourth shot, he knew or should have known that (Green) was over 30 feet away, standing still, unarmed, complying with his orders,” Duncan wrote.
Charlotte attorney Will DeVore, who represents Streater and Green, said the judges followed legal precedent in denying Wilson immunity. He expects the new trial to begin in three to six months. “I hate to put the family through a second trial, because it’s such a graphic incident,” he said.
Police attorney Mark Newbold said Wilson’s defense team is “reviewing all our options, including whether an appeal is feasible.”
Any appeal would go to the U.S. Supreme Court.